The 80s was a time of great innovation in hip hop. The decade encompassed both Old School and Golden Age hip hop and saw the rise of scratching, beatboxing, MCs, and DJs as important parts of the art.
Many 80s hip hop songs went on to become deeply influential in the genre and part of the American musical traditions as a whole. Here are the best 80s hip hop songs.
“The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
This song has become iconic for being the first hip hop song that offered social commentary, as it describes issues related to inner-city poverty. The lyrics were written in response to the 1980 New York City transit strike, where 33,000 Transport Workers Union walked off the job with the goal of higher wages.
This was at a time when hip hop was still being majorly influenced by disco rather than life events.
The song paved the way for politically based hip-hop music to later come in the late 80s and 90s and is consistently ranked by outlets as one of the most important and innovative tracks of all time. It was the first hip hop recording archived in the Library of Congress. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were also the first hip hop act inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“Straight Outta Compton” by N.W.A
The east coast had long dominated hip hop by 1988, but the N.W.A’s debut album took the genre by storm with its West Coast sound. Many point to this album as the basis for the popular gangster rap sound of the 90s.
The titular song went platinum in the United States and is easily the group’s most recognizable song, with dozens of covers and references having been made to the track over the past several decades.
The album’s creation and reception went on to become the basis for the film of the same name, released in 2015.
“Push It!” by Salt-N-Pepa
Salt-n-Peppa is a group comprised of Cheryl “Salt” James, Sandra “Pepa” Denton, and Deidra “DJ Spinderella” Roper. The group first saw success with their song “Push It”, which hit the top 20 charts in dozens of countries and was the group’s first Grammy nomination.
Based on the strength of this single alone, they reissued their debut album – Hot, Cool, and Vicious – and became the first female rap act to go platinum. They have since seen great success in hip hop since, becoming legends in the genre and one of the best-selling acts of all time.
“Walk This Way” by Run-D.M.C ft. Aerosmith
Now considered a classic hip-hop song, this cover version of “Walk This Way” almost did not exist. Run-DMC had freestyled over a sample of the song without knowing how the whole song sounded. Then, they were not interested in issuing the re-make as a single.
However, this first-of-its-kind collaboration helped both groups become introduced to new audiences. The song ranked on urban and rock charts, going platinum in multiple countries. It helped revive Aerosmith’s then-declining image and has become a concert staple for Run-DMC.
“Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang
This song has become infamous for putting hip-hop on the map, being the first of its kind to reach the top 40 in the United States, number three in the UK, and number one in Canada.
The song opens with the first single from their debut, self-titled album. This album is considered by many to be the first official hip hop studio album ever released. The song has been noted as one of the most important American musical works in history and is in the Library of Congress Archives.
“Fight the Power” by Public Enemy
The group Public Enemy was known for its politically charged messages. This song was specifically conceived for the Spike Lee film, “Do the Right Thing”, and incorporates many different samples and references to civil rights, black church services, James Brown’s music, and much more.
The track reached number one on the Hot Rap Singles chart in it is time. It has since become Public Enemy’s most decorated and best-known song. It was nominated for a Grammy that year and has been consistently ranked as one of the greatest songs of all time and as a song that changed history.
“Ladies First” by Queen Latifah ft. Monie Love
This feminist anthem from Queen Latifah’s debut album catapulted Queen Latifah into the spotlight. The track continues to remain one of her signature songs, and ranked number 5 on the U.S. rap chart, her highest hit on that original album.
This move eventually catapulted her to greater fame, as she is now known for her musical work and skills as an actress. However, she is still referred to as the Queen of Rap by many outlets and was the first hip hop artist to get a star on the Hollywood walk of Fame.
“Bust A Move” by Young M.C.
This song is famous for winning the first-ever Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance in 1990. The track was on the Billboard Hot 100 for 39 weeks in the late 80s, making it his most popular hit during his career. Also notable are his collaborations with the rapper Tone Lōc and his gold status album, Brainstorm.
“Paul Revere” by Beastie Boys
The third single from the hip hop/rock group’s debut album, this song was not their most critically successful but has gone down as one of the best of the Beastie Boys by their hip hop contemporaries. The track tells a fictional story of how the group members met, and it has since been sampled several times by other rap groups.
10. “That’s The Joint” by Funky 4 + 1
Funky 4 + 1 was a group that became famous for having the first female MC, the “plus one” of the group. This track has become famous for influencing early hip hop, helping cement the expected sounds a lyrical content of the time. The song is influenced by dance rhythms, jazz, disco, and funk music.
“Parents Just Don’t Understand” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince
Before Will Smith was now known for his illustrious acting career, he was a rapper from Philidelphia by the name of The Fresh Prince.
The duo, which consisted of Smith and Jeff Townes (or DJ Jazzy Jeff) were known for their lighthearted approach to hip hop. The lyrics focused around telling stories and were free from expletives, making it ironically a parent-friendly version of the art that could be enjoyed both in the Bronx and areas of suburbia.
This song catapulted them to household names and won the pair a Grammy Award – the first-ever in the category – for best rap performance, beating out groups like Salt-n-Pepa and Kool Moe Dee.
The hit show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, starred Smith and regularly featured Townes. The show regularly referenced the song. While the two are not technically a duo, they still occasionally perform together.
“Microphone Fiend” by Eric B & Rakim
The duo Eric B and Rakim are recognized as one of the single most influential DJ/MC duos in the history of hip hop. Tracks like “Microphone Fiend” cemented their status, featuring many of the golden age of hip hop standards like soul music samples, vocal syncopation, and record scratching. The song has since become a standard of hip hop. Many groups and duos from all genres have covered the song since its release.
Both individuals have been recognized as the best at what they do. Rakim especially is noted for introducing the use of multisyllabic rhymes into hip hop and rap. Their album Paid in Full has been named the single best hip hop album ever by MTV.
“La Di Da Di” by Doug E. Fresh and M.C. Ricky D
This early hip hop classic was originally a B-side and has since become one of the single most sampled songs in music history. Doug E. Fresh does the beatbox instrumentals while MC Ricky D, also known by the stage name Slick Rick, raps over his beats.
The song has since been sampled and referenced by the likes of Snoop Dog, Ice Cube, The Notorious B.I.G, Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé, Kanye West, 2Pac, and many more since it came out in 1985, making it one of the most enduringly popular songs from its era.
“Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force
This song is notable for influencing the genre of hip hop by fusing hip hop breaks with synthesizer sounds, blurring the lines between hip hop and funk.
The song came together when Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force bonded over their shared love of the electronic band Kraftwerk and decided to make a song based on that appreciation. When it was released, radio DJs weren’t even sure what genre to call it.
The track was extremely popular, and it has since been noted that the track was vital to the cultivation of 80s hip hop, especially those with an electronic basis rather than soul or funk samples.
“6 N The Morning” by Ice T
From Ice-T’s debut studio album, this song is notable for its distinctive MCing style. Long before he began acting, his song was considered to be one of the initial defining tracks that helped create the gangster rap genre that rose to prominence in the late 80s and early 90s.
“The Breaks” by Kurtis Blow
This seminal track made history by being the first-ever certified gold rap song and the second certified gold 12-inch single. This song is unique as rapper Kurtis Blow repeats the word break and its many homophones 84 times in the six-and-a-half-minute track, laying down a foundation for future MCs.
Instead of using a sample sound, the underlying beat is original to the song. In return, that sound has since been sampled by many different artists since it was released. The song has also become popular in the last few decades for its prominence in the video game series Grand Theft Auto.
“Wild Wild West” by Kool Moe Dee
Kool Moe Dee, formerly a member of the pioneering group The Treacherous Three, released this song as a second single from his second studio album, entitled How Ya Like Me Now. The single peaked at number four on the US Billboard Hop R&B/Hip Hop Songs.
Kool Moe Dee has consistently been named as one of the best MCs in hip hop history, so it is not surprising that this song would come back up again over a decade later.
The track has a revival in 1999 when Will Smith sampled his song of the same name, which was featured in the steampunk western film, also titled Wild Wild West, that starred Smith. Kool Moe Dee was also featured on that track.
“Roxanne’s Revenge” by Roxanne Shanté
“Roxanne’s Revenge” is unique for having sparked The Roxanne Wars, a series of answer records that went back and forth. This feud began with U.T.F.O.’s song “Roxanne, Roxanne.”
When the group canceled a radio appearance, Lolita Shanté Gooden, only 14 at the time, saw an opportunity – she offered to make a hip hop record under the name Roxanne Shanté that would get back at U.T.F.O.
The single was considered especially confrontational and profanity-laden at the time, but it was a hit. Eventually, U.T.F.O responded with another answer record, which was unusual for the time – typically, answer records stopped after two.
This reply created a tidal wave of other answer records. Somewhere between 30 to 100 different answer songs were recorded at this time, all oriented around this initial feud.
This song has been regarded as one of the best diss tracks in all of rap history. A biopic film about Rozanne Shanté’s life was released in 2017.
“My Myself and I” by De La Soul
This song was a single from De La Soul’s critically acclaimed debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising. The album has consistently placed on lists as one of the greatest of all time. It was also added to the Library of Congress and National Recording Registry in 2010 for its influence.
The track was nominated for a grammy in 1990, hit number one on the U.S. R&B chart, and topped the U.S. Club Play Chart. The song continues to be popular today.
20. “Lyte as a Rock” by MC Lyte
The fourth single from her debut album, this song directly addressed sexism in hip hop, which MC Lyte dealt with plenty. This album, titled after the song, was the first-ever full-length album released by a solo female rapper, cementing her in history.
While this record saw little commercial success when it was first released, it has since been re-evaluated and noted as one of the best hip hop albums to come from the 80s. Also notable is its influence on other female rappers, as many other artists have been affected by MC Lyte’s work, including Queen Latifah, Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliot, Flo Milli, Lauryn Hill, and others.
“Smooth Operator” by Big Daddy Kane
Big Daddy Kane emerged in the 1980s as a member of the Juice Crew, which featured many of the most prominent rappers of its time. Kane was known for helping cultivate the lifestyle around hip-hop, not only being a talented MC but also known for his overall charm.
This song is easily Big Daddy Kane’s best-known track. It was a hit on the R&B and dance charts, and the music video has since become notable for its appearance of the then relatively unknown Chris Rock getting his hair cut a little over halfway through.
“Supersonic” by J.J. Fad
This female trio was on the dance charts for eight weeks with this track. It was certified gold by the RIAA and made them the first all-female rap group to be nominated for a Grammy award.
The song has since become known for being heavily sampled in the Fergie song “Fergalicious,” which uses parts of the beat and borrows from the singing melody as well. While there was some initial controversy over the use of the beat, it worked out for both parties involved.
“Light Years Away” by Warp 9
This song was originally influenced by tracks like “The Message” and the afro-futurist sound of “Planet Rock.” The song has become famous for its at the time cutting-edge sound. The song used 80s beatbox with layered electro-music and vocoders, which were rare.
This track was also innovative for incorporating singing and rapping into the same song, the Latin percussion, and syncopated snare. Warp 9 has since become recognized as one of the most iconic electro hip hop groups.
“Just A Friend” by Biz Markie
Also known as The Clown Prince of Hip Hop, Biz Markie was famous for the lighthearted raps that poked fun at himself and others. He was best known for his abilities in beatboxing as part of the famous Juice Crew, but as this song shows, could also MC when he wanted.
The track uses the 1968 Freddie Scott song “(You Go)t What I Need” as the base for the song’s chorus, where Markie describes pursuing a woman who is involved with another man, whom she claims is only a friend. This track was his most successful single, hitting number 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 and going platinum, which has caused many to classify him as a one-hit-wonder.
The music video has become famous in its own right, featuring Markie telling a story to friends in a flashback, cutting back and forth to him dressed as Motzart playing piano. It has since been referenced and parodied in a variety of songs and other media.
“It’s My Beat” by Sweet Tee ft. DJ Snazzy Joyce
This song was the debut single of the rapper Sweet Tee on her debut album with the female DJ Jazzy Joyce.
Despite the sexism in the industry at the time, the song succeeded. It ranked as one of the best singles of 1987 during the traditional year-end roundups. The album itself hit number 31 on the US Billboard R&B chart.
“Cars With The Boom” by L’Trimm
L’Trimm was a hip hop duo composed of two women, Bunny D and Lady Tigra, from the Miami area of Florida. This break-out track was on their first album, Grab It, an escapist and pop-minded album for hip hop, focusing on the more lighthearted elements of life.
“Cars With The Boom” hit number 54 on the Billboard Hot 100 at its release, and the album was a minor success. In recent years, the song has found a renewed life. It became a trending song on TikTok in 2020, becoming popularized by a new generation.
“Top Billin” by Audio Two
This track was a single for the duo Audio Two, comprised of Kirk “Milk Dee” Robinson and DJ Nat “Gizmo” Robinson. This song was originally the b-side on a record but despite the odds, it ended up becoming a chart hit.
While the duo did not see another success, the song has been sampled many times by artists such as Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Mary J. Blige, Dr. Dre, and others. In 2007, Milk Dee recorded a verse for 50 Cent’s remix of his song “I Get Money”, where he thanked all the artists that sampled the song and earned the duo royalties.
“I’m Bad” by LL Cool J
This song was LL Cool J’s first big break into Billboard’s top 100. It hit #4 on the Hot Hip Hop songs and #2 on the Hot Dance Music Singles.
The song has since become a standard for the rapper at concerts. It has gone on to be sampled by various other artists since its inception.
“Children’s Story” by Slick Rick
Slick Rick, who rose to prominence with his earlier featured song “La Di Da Di,” has frequently been ranked as one of the best MCs to come out of the 80s. Known for his signature eyepatch look – which came from when he was blinded in one eye as an infant – his solo debut was met with great popular success and critical reception.
The second single, “Children’s Story,” uses vocal samples from the James Brown song “Think (About It).” The track hit number 5 on the Hot R&B singles, staying there for 19 weeks. The song has since been produced into a children’s book in 2017, and its opening line is one of the most sampled lines in hip hop.
30. “I’ll House You” by Jungle Brothers
The first single of the debut album, this single was famous for being the first non-Chicago house rap record that was big enough in clubs to become a hit. The track was number 16 on the billboard hot rap singles and 28 on the Hot Dance Music sales. These numbers affected how hip-hop and dance industries worked together to create music meant specifically for clubs after.
“(Hey You) The Rock Steady Crew” by Rock Steady Crew
The debut single from the hip hop group Rock Steady Crew quickly became the group’s single most popular hit. It hit the top ten charts in 11 countries and hit the number one position in the Netherlands and Belgium.
The group – specifically members Richard “Crazy Legs” Colon and Kenneth “Ken Swift” Gabbert – were pioneers of b-boy culture (or breakdancing, as it is more commonly known)and helped bring it to the hip hop cultural forefront.
Because of the track’s success, members of the Rock Steady Crew found themselves featured in films like Flashdance and Beat Street. This helped ignite a larger international interest in b-boy culture as a whole.
“I Don’t Need Your Love (Part One)” by The Sequence
The Sequence was the first female hip hop trio to sign to the famous Sugar Hill Records. Their biggest hit, “Funk You Up” was released in 179 and gained significance as the first hip-hop song released by a female rap group and by a rap group from the southern United States.
While the group did not see much success after that initial release, they did release the song “I Don’t Need Your Love (Part One)” as a single in 192, which hit the top 40 on the singles chart.
“Cold Crush Brothers At The Dixie” by The Cold Crush Brothers
The group The Cold Crush Brothers was an underground hit in New York in the late 70s and early 80s. They were well known for their stage performances, which included elaborate routines and difficult-to-recreate harmonies and melodies.
They found moderate success when featured in the movie Wild Style. The film is considered to be the first American hip hop motion picture and includes many different major figures in the scene at the time.
The soundtrack featured a variety of performances from old-school hip hop artists, making reviewers mark it as one of the first truly great hip hop albums in retrospect. But most notably was the Cold Crush Brothers’ song “Cold Crush Brothers At The Dixie.”
“The New Rap Language” by The Treacherous Three
This song was originally featured as the B side to former Treacherous Three member Spoonie G. It was this track that put the group on the map, and marked the birth of a new kind of lyricism – speed rapping.
“The Symphony” by Marley Marl ft. Masta Ace, Kool G Rap, Craig G, and Big Daddy Kane
This song, which features most of the famous Juice Crew, is often considered the originator of the posse song cut style. The song's signature loop comes from Otis Redding's song “Hard to Handle,” and individual pieces of the rap have been samples by other hip hop artists in the past several decades.
This song also marked the first recording of Masta Ace, who had not intended to be on the song – he only stepped up to the mic because the other MCs weren’t eager to go first.
“Wipeout” by The Fat Boys ft. The Beach Boys
The Fat Boys were a hip hop trio made of Prince Markie Dee, Kool Rock-Ski, and Buff Love. The group was one of the first to release a full-length album and was known for popularizing the use of beatboxing in their music.
Their fourth album, Crushin’, hit platinum stats thanks to their hit single “Wipeout”. After the success of the Run-DMC and Aerosmith collaboration, “Walk This Way,” The Fat Boys and The Beach Boys saw a chance to capitalize on those broken warriors and collaborate.
This song was originally a Surf Rock instrumental rack from the 60s, and this version hit the top 20 charts in six different countries.
“Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)” by Hashim
Hashim, born Gerald C. Calliste Jr., bought his first keyboard when he was 16, and learned to play it by ear. He then self-produced the electro-funk song “Al-Naafiysh” in 1983, which was influenced by songs like “Planet Rock”. This track, which pre-dates the rise of MCs, became influential in its own right as one of the original hip hop tracks without vocals.
“Critical Beatdown” by Ultramagnetic MCs
The Ultramagnetic MCs debut album, Critical Beatdown, received moderate reviews and success when released in 1988.
However, hindsight is 2020, and in recent years many reviewers have turned back to this album as emblematic of the golden age of hip hop. The lyrics are in a stream-of-consciousness style and use a staccato sound. The beats created for the track were notable for pushing sampling beyond what had been done before.
The album is now considered innovative for its time and widely influential on its contemporary acts as well as the generations of hip hop that came after. The titular track is one of the best examples of this innovation and has become popular due to its use in the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
“Friends” by Whodini
This hip hop group was notable for being an early rap group to include R&B in their music and for their elaborate live performances, which often included breakdancing. The inclusion of R&B became influential for the foundation of the genre swingbeat. This style is a fusion of dance and R&B music.
Their song “Friend” was one of their most successful singles, as it hit #4 on the R&B/Hip Hop Songs chart. The album was on, Escape, ended up being certified platinum by the RIAA, having sold one million albums on release.
Top 80s Hip Hop Songs, Final Thoughts
Some of the best hip hop songs of all time came from the 80s. From lighthearted raps about being misunderstood to political messages to daily accounts of life in New York, these tracks are now regularly sampled on modern tracks and considered true classics.
Because it was so early in the genre's creation, each song or album was breaking a record or innovating the style beyond the last, making it a time of great importance for rappers, hip hop artists, and all musicians to come.